Women who juggle career and family tend to be thinner and healthier as they approach midlife than long-term stay-at-home moms, a new study suggests.

Researchers tracked the health of a group of British women from their mid-20s to their mid-50s and found that full-time homemakers were the most likely to be obese in their sixth decade.

Women in long-term relationships who had raised kids while they held jobs outside the home were least likely to be overweight, and they also reported being in better overall health.

“We have known for some time that women who combine employment with family life tend to be healthier,” researcher Anne McMunn, PhD, tells WebMD. “But we haven’t really understood if good health allows women to combine work and children or if combining work and family life leads to better health.”

Homemakers Heavier

In an effort to answer that question, the University College London epidemiologist examined data from self-reported health questionnaires and face-to-face interviews from 1,171 women born in 1946 who had been part of a national health study since birth. Measurements of height and weight were taken during the face-to-face interviews.

They found that at age 54, women who had been wives, mothers, and had a long work history were significantly less likely to report being in poor health than women who did not fulfill all three roles.

Women who had been homemakers for all or most of their lives and who had not held outside jobs were most likely to report that they were in poor health, followed by mothers without partners, and childless women.

Women who had worked during several periods of their lives were less likely to be obese than women who had rarely worked.

Fewer than one in four women (23 percent) in stable relationships who had raised children and held outside jobs for many years were obese at age 53, compared to 38 percent of women who were described as long-term married homemakers.

Moms With Small Kids

The findings could not be explained by the women’s health early in life, and early-life health did not appear to influence whether the women became employees, wives, and mothers.

“This research doesn’t address why working moms tend to be healthier,” McMunn says. “And we certainly aren’t saying that working moms aren’t stressed. But it may be that being able to participate fully in society, both in and outside the home, is important for health.”

The study is not the first to suggest that combining roles is good for health. A study from the University of Pennsylvania involving 16,000 women and 21,000 men, published in 2004, found that while women tended to be healthier than men overall, the health benefits were limited to working women.

But the findings also suggested that the stresses associated with holding down a job while raising small children take their toll on women’s health.

Researcher Jason Schnittker, PhD, told WebMD at the time that when children were younger than 6, a working woman’s health suffered, but it began improving afterward.

The health of working men in the study did not appear to be influenced by this same time period of children’s age.

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: McMunn, A. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2006; vol 60: pp 484-489. Anne McMunn, PhD, senior research fellow, department of epidemiology and public health, University College London. WebMD Medical News: “Working Women: Healthier, Happier.” Jason Schnittker, PhD, professor of sociology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.